My Dark Angel
The best way to build a career in genre fiction is to find a groove and stick with it. Write an open-ended series about a jazz/blues/reggae-loving detective with a permanent life crisis. Write a ten volume fantasy trilogy. And then do it again. Write a series of novels and stories set in a future history. The last is how I started out, but after a bunch of short stories and three novels (400 Billion Stars, Secret Harmonies, Eternal Light), I veered off into the left-field with the Chinese-Messiah-on-Mars chop-socky epic Red Dust. And I followed that up with Pasquale’s Angel, an alternate history novel set in Florence in the early sixteenth century, a couple of decades after Leonardo da Vinci kickstarted an Industrial Revolution.
I’d long had an ambition to write something about Leonardo da Vinci, if only because I was fascinated by his undisciplined genius, and more than half in love with the cloudy myths that obscured the realities of his life (if you want a bracing antidote to those myths, try Charles Nicholl’s Leonardo da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind, or Serge Bramly’s Leonardo: The Artist and the Man). He didn’t see any boundaries between arts and science, an attitude that was catnip to a novelist whose day job was a scientific research, and who’d had to make a choice between science and the arts at a tender age. That was the prevailing attitude of his age, of course, but Leonardo also seemed to be a man out of time, dreaming of technologies impossible to realise with contemporary materials and power sources. Any SF writer worth their salt must surely sympathise.
As it turned out, for much of the novel, Leonardo is a shadowy, mythic figure raised above and isolated from the world he’s created - you don’t need to be a critic to unriddle that metaphor. If there’s one consistent thread in my work, it’s identification with those caught up in plots that are larger than they ever understand: and so here, as our hero hooks up with consulting detective Niccolo Machiavegli, prowls the mean streets and tries to foil a filthy Spanish plot to bring down the government of his city state.
Did I also mention that it’s a noir novel?
I had a lot of fun writing it, and even more fun researching it. Luckily, one of the greatest living Leonardo scholars, Martin Kemp, was working in St Andrews University at the time, which meant that I had access to a couple of shelves of research material in the library. I never did dare to approach Professor Kemp about my funny little idea, though. And I’ve still never visited Florence. One day, one day . . . But it won’t be the same as the Florence of my mind, with its dark satanic mills, and acetylene-lit streets crowded with every kind of vaporetto.
I like the cover of the new paperback a lot. Although I also very much like the cover of the original hardback and paperback, in which Jim Burns captured Pasquale to the life; authors often dislike seeing renderings by others of their hero and heroine because they don’t match up with their internal pictures. In this case, Jim read my mind with perfect fidelity.